Sixty middle school students participated last summer in the Northland College Apostle Island School, held on Stockton Island. The twenty-eight-year-old outdoor and environmental residential program is a partnership between the Northland College Outdoor Education Department and the Apostle Islands National Lakeshore with participating middle school teachers and parent volunteers.
The Island School is a group effort. The schools raise money and provide food, families pay a nominal fee to cover equipment and bus costs, the National Park Service provides staffing, and the Friends of the Apostle Islands provides transportation to Stockton Island, where the students spend three days.
In surveying students about their experience, Katherine Jenkins, visiting assistant outdoor education professor, who heads the program, said that their answers echoed an unwavering historical programmatic theme—that students recognized a deeper felt sense of connectedness to nature and appreciation of nature.
One student commented: “It’s a very different environment. Everyone should get this experience. It might make people see the world a different way so they might take care of the world better.”
And another wrote: “It’s changed me by teaching me to go outside. There’s the Bear Trail right by my house that I want to hike on now.”
“This is something we always hope students will gain from the program and that will stay with them as they transition back into their own lives,” Jenkins said. “Not only is this understanding and experience necessary for our survival as a species, it is necessary for understanding and sensing our place in the world and how we relate to all life.”
Island School staff also heard something new. When they checked in with students about their fears they heard something new. “Typically, they talk about things like bears and outhouses,” she said. “This year it was: ‘having to leave my cell phone at home,’” she said.
However, Jenkins said, the post-program interviews exposed an overwhelming gratitude for getting away from technology, having the opportunity to spend time with friends and developing social skills.
“This came as a surprise to staff as this message was not embedded into or even a focus of the curriculum. Students brought this up of their own accord,” she said.
One student said about the Island School: “It’s important because it gets kids out of the house. A lot of kids stay inside. It’s a chance to get fresh air and exercise. Here there’s no civilization, there’s no Xbox. It’s better than Xbox. Here you are hanging with friends and you’re occupied.”
And another wrote: “It got us away from technology. We’re on our phones a lot as a society and getting kids out into the wilderness shows them how not to be a robot and look at a screen all day.”
“This and the other comments are potent,” Jenkins said.
“These comments expose the prevailing disconnect, and resulting anxiety and depression, that is occurring in our society along with deadening senses and lives as students engage with screens on average eight hours a day,” she said.
Students also reflected on feeling relaxed and peaceful in ways that they haven’t experienced before.
Wrote one student: “I felt peaceful. It’s not loud here. I felt like I am a part of nature. I am proud this all stands without being destroyed. There aren’t many places that are like this.”
“The wisdom of the Island School students’ words and experience tell a story of peace and relaxation, of connecting to nature, of a joy in departing from technology for a little while, of pleasure in getting to socialize with friends, of a concern and hope for the future,” Jenkins said.
“At this time in human history, when mental health issues in youth are increasing alongside an increasing obesity epidemic, Apostle Island School students give us the key to the future: they are reminding us to integrate the experience of the natural world into our lives.”
Note: The Apostle Island School was formed at the Northland College Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute twenty-eight years ago. Twelve years ago, it shifted to the Outdoor Education Department, under the leadership of Professor Clayton Russell. Next year the Island School will return to the Sigurd Olson Environmental Institute, under the direction of the new Bro Professor Evan Coulson.